COMMENTARY: ‘Eerie’ absence of air travel amid coronavirus has repercussions on economy

Millions of Torontonians living and working under the flight path of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport may have noticed a big difference recently in the skies above them.

The number of flights into and out of Pearson has been cut by more than 50 per cent over the past couple of weeks, with further grim cuts coming soon because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Air traffic controllers at Pearson, Canada’s busiest airport, usually handle about 1,100 air movements a day, according to data published by the airport. Following air traffic flows on FlightAware.com and FlightRadar.com, it appears that because of bans on travel between Canada and the U.S. and the lack of demand caused by the new coronavirus, there were only about 500 air movements on Wednesday.

The peak morning and afternoon rush hours now have so few flights that the radar picture looks like the usual situation 1 a.m. Additional deep service cuts announced by Canadian and U.S. carriers suggest that the number of flights will drop sharply again by the end of March.

“It’s really eerie,” said an air traffic controller at Pearson airport.

Official flight figures for February and March were still being collated, but “it is well known that the aviation industry has seen air traffic on the whole decrease significantly,” said Brian Boudreau, manager of media relations from Nav Canada, which manages airspace across the country.

U.S. air traffic control centres have had to temporarily suspend flights or have them overseen from backup facilities because several air traffic controllers have become infected with the new coronavirus.

While not specifically saying that no Canadian air traffic controllers had fallen ill with the virus, Boudreau said all of its operations are functioning without interruption.

“We do not anticipate disruptions given the measures we’ve taken in preparation for, and in response to COVID-19,” Boudreau said. “Nav Canada is at a high degree of readiness, with contingency plans in place to ensure the continued safety of Canadian skies.”

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